Getting into DPRK
As many of the other tips have commented on, there are a few weekly flights to P'yongyang via Beijing, Shenyang, Russia and Macau. All flights are operated by Air Kyoro.
There is also a train that comes from China, passing through Dandong boarder over the Yalu River.
But you will need an invitation Visa to enter into DPRK. Processing time can be ~1 month or longer. Contact the North Korean travel agency, "KITC" - Korean International Travel Company for details. You will have to spend a day or two in Beijing in order to pick up your Visa at the DPRK Consulate, therefore additional time and two-entry Chinese Visa will be required.
D.P.R. of Korea
Tel: (+850-2) 18111 ext. 8901, 8574, 8283
Tel: (+850-2) 3818859, 3817201, 3817202, 3818901
Fax: (+850-2) 3817607, 3814645
Or as most do, since you will enter and tour as a group, go through a foreign agency and let them do the work. There are a few in England, Spain, Germany, etc. that offer packages. But in the USA, there is only one that I know of, Asia Pacific Travel Ltd (http://www.northkorea1on1.com/).
Update - Starting January 2010, American tourists will be allowed:
1) to visit throughout the year, just like all other nationalities (except South Koreans);
2) to stay in the DPRK for longer times with an 8 to 10 day stay being okay; and
3) will now be charged the same prices as Europeans.
However, Americans are still not allowed to take the train to/from China like all other nationalities.
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Pyongyang to Beijing train
We left Pyongyang on a train bound for Beijing at shortly after 10am in the morning. The last two carriages on this train where going all the way while the rest of the train would terminate at the Chinese border at Dandong. There were 12 people in my tour party, so we had three 4-berth compartments. Just before we departed, we said our goodbyes to our two tour guides who gave us back our mobile phones which were taken off us when we went through security checks after we had arrived at Pyongyang airport. The train itself was fine and it seems to be OK to take photos from it as long as you're not too blatant. The train has a buffet car we tried out where the food was OK - fish, rice, veg etc. We arrived at the border at about 4pm, after going through mostly flat and plain landscapes of rice paddy fields, and this is where the fun began. North Korean border guards got on border and took our passports with them to be checked. This took some time. A guard then came to our compartment and asked for camera's. This wasn't a good sign. He started with mine and I had a horrible few minutes sitting opposite him thinking that he would delete all my pictures. Lucky for me, he started going through a couple of thousand photo's I had taken in China at the beginning and so didn't have time to get to the one's I had taken in North Korea. What a relief!!! We got our passports back and went over the river that flows between North Korea and China. The difference between the two countries is stark.
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This was one of the main things I was looking forward to in Pyongyang - a ride on the city's metro. Firstly, we entered down some steps off a street into Yonggwang station which is located just to the north of the main overland railway station. We hung around by some ticket barriers waiting for our guides to get coin tokens which cost 5 won each (about 4 US cents). We were shown an electrically operated map on the wall which showed us 2 lines - the north-south Chollima line (named after a mythical flying horse, the Korean Pegasus) and east-west Hyoksin (Renovation) line. When you pressed a certain button at the button of the map, the relevant station would light up to tell you its location - futuristic stuff! There are 17 known stations altogether, although it is believed that more lines and secret stations exist for military and government officials. Stations have names like Paradise (Rakwon), Triumph (Jonsung), Renovation (Hyoksin) and Reunification (Tongli) which beat our boring station names like Baker Street and Paddington on the London Underground! The whole metro system is entirely underground and is the world's deepest with many stations being more than 100 metres below the surface. We were lead down a step, long escalator with no advertising on the walls unlike any other metro system I've been on and reached the platforms which features lovely wall murals and sculptures. The best thing at this particular station are the enormous chandeliers which are coloured pink, green and yellow. A train came in to the station whilst we were taking everything in and taking photo's and a whole crowd of well dressed people got off and walked past us without taking much notice of us in jeans, t-shirts and shorts! It is said that all of this is staged for each tourist visit and it did have a Trueman Showesque about it. Make the most of this as it'll be your only time that you get to mix with 'everyday' North Koreans. Yonggwang station features columns that are shaped like Olympic torches with arches sprouting out of the top, which look like flames. After spending about 10-15 minutes on the concourse, we got on a train which had the portraits of the Kim's looking down on you and then got off at the next station. I've added a short video taken by tour cameraman. More excellent information can be found by visiting the website below.
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Trolleybuses & trams
Both the trolleybuses and trams are just like the ones I saw in St Petersburg. The tram system runs for 53km (33 miles) whilst the trolleybus system runs for 150km (93 miles). One thing that I noticed is that waiting passengers seem to face in the opposite direction to where the tram or trolleybus was coming from, which I didn't understand and thought was a bit strange. Also, given the power shortages that happen in the city, they must have plenty of delays. Of course, you're not allowed the opportunity to ride of them.
Our tour bus
This was our rather inconspicuous tour bus throughout our tour around North Korea. It stands out like a sore thumb doesn't it?! We were allowed to open the windows in order to take photos from it which I thought wouldn't be possible to do and as a consequence, I took some 600 photos of Pyongyang alone. Funny thing is, given that the Japanese occupied Korea and the hardships that they brought on the people, the bus is actually Japanese and right-hand drive. It even had Japanese Yokohama tyres.
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Flight from Beijing
Apart from Air China, the only other way in to North Korea by air is with their national carrier - Air Koryo - infamous for being the only airline to be rated 1 star currently by Skytrax. As part of my trip itinerary, I flew in from Beijing with Air Koryo on an old looking Russian plane called an Ilyushin II-62M that, I think, was built in the 1970's. The first photo of it is at Beijing whilst the 2nd and 3rd are at Pyongyang. I sat next to two German ladies, one of which has been working in North Korea for the last couple of years helping them out with agriculture as they have suffered from bad floods in recent years. The plane was surprisingly fairly full with a mixture of western and Chinese tourists and businessmen and North Koreans allowed out on good behaviour in order to do business with the Chinese.
I got given two pieces of reading material - the first was called "The Pyongyang Times" which was a very thin A3 newspaper with a few photos on the front of Kim Jong Il visiting some industrial complex. The date at the top was Saturday, May 31, Juche 97 (2008). Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea which was developed by Kim Il Sung. Juche 97 is 97 years after his birth in 1912. The second piece of reading material was a nice large A3 glossy magazine with some very nice photo's, some of which look very staged and look like they could have come straight out of a 1970's fashion catalogue. The first sentence I read from it was "Korea fell into ruins owing to the three-year war (June 1950-July 1953) provoked by the US imperialists." And this was even before we had even landed in North Korea! (there's a website you can visit - see below. Click on "The Pyongyang Times" or “Korea" for online past editions).
Food was served during the flight which was rice, some kind of pork and potato dish with sauce, salad, sponge cake and tinned like fruit. It would have been better if it wasn't all stone cold. Drinks were also served and I helped myself to my first introduction to North Korean beer which was frothy and strong tasting. We came in to land over 100's of rice paddy fields with dark brown soil in the middle of nowhere with just a few buildings dotted around, after being in the air for a couple of hours. We all then got off and headed to the small terminal building full of guards and airport officials. Passport control was a breeze and then I had to wait for my bag which was then scanned through an X-ray machine. I was asked if I was carrying a mobile phone or a laptop to which I replied no and I then walked out to where my fellow tour members were waiting beside a small bus. I managed to get my copy of Lonely Planet Korea through but I had to show my camera and iPod which I then took through with me. Easy! I was expecting a full bag search and for it to take ages but there was no such thing. People even got their laptops back but mobile phones were confiscated, only to be returned at the end of the trip.
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Train to Beijing
We took the train leaving the DPRK from Pyongyang to Beijing. The train leaves at 10:00 AM and takes about 22-23 hrs. The cabins were quite comfortable and there is a dining car. The train stops in Sinuiju (DPRK side) for immigration around 3PM. We were able to get off the train here for an hour and had a beer at a microbrewery in the station. The train then crosses the Yalu river to Dandong for Chinese immigration and they attach more cabins and a Chinese dining car. Altogether it took about 3 hrs for immigration on both sides. The train continues overnight and arrives at the Beijing main station around 9AM.
You can't take local transport
Buses are usually overcrowded. Trams often stand in one place due to electricity shortage. People just sit outside and wait. Or sitting inside and wait. Or walk. You'll see so many people walking.
Local transport is just for your camera, not for you.
When you are touring through the cities or the country side, you will no doubt notice a sever lack of vehicles on the road.
Reasons are simple mostly... economics. Only a select few can afford cars, and even fewer can afford fuel. Fuel is the most common concession during negotiations with foreign countries.
However, if you thought there were few cars on the road on most days, Sunday will truly show you the possibilities. It is illegal to drive on Sunday in DPRK, unless you have prior authorization. That means that only the rich and/or influential people will be on the roads on Sunday.
As another point of control over the masses, DPRK institutes a 6-day work week. The one day they have as holiday (Sunday) is limited due to the fact that they cannot freely travel anywhere. Buses are full on these days and times required for a day trip negate most of the options.
Your guides will take you everywhere
Regardless of what DPRK government publications say, or the tourist maps say, there is no way that you will use any public transportation.
Your tours in P'yongyang will likely include a visit to the city Metro, where you will ride only one section and see the stations on both ends.
Buses for locals are common and relatively cheap (less than $0.05), but you will not be allowed to use these. Taxis must exist, because I saw one at the airport during my five days in DPRK (but there was no driver, only the parked car).
Anywhere that you go will be escorted and coordinated by your guides. You will not even be able to walk the city without escort.
The upside to the transportation in DPRK, is that you will likely have the road all to yourself. Extremely few people can afford cars, even fewer the fuel (we even saw a truck that ran by means of a wood-fired steam engine). Pedestrians and bicycles will be most common all the way to the farthest corners of the country.
One stop only
As a sight seeing attraction you might be allowed to ride one stop with the Pyongyang Metro.
The stations are very deep in the ground and have mostly very beautiful stations with propaganda mosaics and nice lighting.
You will not have the chance to talk to people as your guides will watch you. Also ask your guides first, if you want to take pictures of people.
Price for a ride is about 3 cents.... paid by your guides.
Wanna drive a car?
Just forget if you want to drive a car in North Korea as a tourist. You will have a driver and some guides watching you. They will show you around in North Korea.
Annoying: Roads (even highways) are in very bad shape. Expect a lot of road holes!Related to:
- Road Trip
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It's a long way....
After France put Air Koryo on its "Black List" I decided to enter North Korea rather by train than plane. Another advantage in my opinion is that you have the chance to see some more of North Korea without beeing watched too much. But still a lot of North Korean more-or-less-officials are on the train. Please watch your language and do not take too many pictures out of the train.
Trains are leaving Beijing on 5.25pm (Train No. K27) on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. It takes 25 hours for 1349 km, also because the Tracks in North Korea are in very bad shape and the train can not go faster then about 30 km/h...
Very annoying: Custom and Immigration in China and North Korea might take up to 5 hours (!) including a lot of questions, going through your luggage, your purse, your pockets.
Also expect low temperatures in winter (especially for North Korean Trains), bad air (smoking), power breakdown (waiting up to an hour possible) and immigration officers who would like some presents to speed up processes. Cigarettes and Chocolote might be very helpful.Related to:
- Budget Travel
K27 Beijing to Pyongyang
As already described, the train is the best way to enter the country, it is even a fantastic experience to ride the K27 international train from Beijing to Pyongyang. Another interesting option would be to enter the country from russia, but may be very difficult to obtain the ticket...Related to:
Consider to enter NK by train
There are flights from Beijing to Pyongyang, but taking the overnight train is an interesting alternative. Probably a bit safer, it also allows one to get interesting views from the country side and the farmers´ life in the north.
It leaves at 17h25 in Beijing Central Station and arrives at 19h30 the following day in Pyongyang.
Train tickets can be arranged by the North Koreans (see link below).Related to:
- Budget Travel
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